Issue #68: Apparat Organ Quartet by Apparat Organ Quartet
June 5, 2017
Released In 2002
Released By 12 Tónar Records
Some things are the same no matter where you buy them. A can of Coke is a can of Coke, regardless of which vending machine it came out of. Sushi, on the other hand… that’s something you want to source a little more carefully.
With the .mp3 era in the rearview mirror and the age of streaming approaching full swing, it seems like a good time to remind ourselves that music can be more like sushi than Coke. Where and how you get it has profound consequences when it comes to how you experience it.
My wife and I have friends named Lyndsey and Travis who have been in-the-know early about a zillion bands we later got into. In 2012, they visited Iceland and Sweden, and before they left, Travis spent some time researching Reykjavik record stores, an act of foresight that resulted in a fat stack of Icelandic music returning stateside. He even picked up extra copies of CDs for friends, and one of those was Apparat Organ Quartet’s self-titled debut album from 2002.
The album was purchased at a spot in Reykjavik that you might compare to Third Man Records in Nashville — a hybrid storefront/label called 12 Tónar. I called him on Saturday to get the details: “If I remember correctly, it wasn’t that big, and you could listen to CDs there. [They] had a table of Icelandic bands, so I sifted through all that stuff. The guy was super helpful in telling us information about each of the bands. I don’t remember him mentioning that they put out this album, but maybe he did at the time. I just remember him telling me that it was a collective of Icelandic piano-composer type guys. And obviously I listened to it and that first track — it was like ‘This is some crazy shit.'”
I’d call “crazy shit” an apt descriptor, though it’s pretty far afield from the way Quartet member Hörður Bragason described his band’s music in the 2005 documentary Screaming Masterpiece, which surveyed Iceland’s thriving music scene. “Our melodies are like old litany tunes that a farmer might have tried to squeeze out of his pump organ in 1793,” he said after talking about how Iceland spent centuries without “proper” instruments. “Then a few pump organs arrived.”
The melodies and instrumentation may have primitive lineage, but if you’ve spent time with this album, you know that the group’s sound is a little more… intense. Four organists, a drummer, and occasional robot voices combine for truly propulsive and often dark electronica. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of situations Apparat Organ Quartet could seamlessly soundtrack: An overly competitive evening of Mario Kart (“Cruise Control“), that scene in thriller movies when the person you’ve been worried about the whole time snaps and starts the inevitable rampage (“The Anguish Of Space Time“), a career-making breakthrough realization for a mathematician (“Ondula Nova“), a friendship being rekindled after a trying time (“Global Capital“), and a debauched Las Vegas montage (“Stereo Rock & Roll“).
It’s tempting to envision these scenarios, in part because Quartet member Jóhann Jóhannsson has gone on to become an accomplished film scorer, but also because long and emotive instrumental passages fit into the classic narrative of Icelandic music: Expansive, cinematic, fjords, Sigur Rós, et cetera. That connection has, to me, always seemed plausible but ultimately remote. An “I’ll take your word for it” situation. But you know what’s not remote? The copy of this album that’s sitting next to me as I type — an object my friend obtained as close to its source as you can get without handing money directly to a band member or recording it himself. In my book, that makes it sacred; listening to it means interacting with a place, not just a sound. That sense of connection — that’s why music isn’t like Coke. Not to me.
All this reminds me of why we do this newsletter in the first place. Whether you find a physical copy of Apparat Organ Quartet or simply pull it up on your preferred streaming service, I hope that learning about it here elevates your experience.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
From left to right: Úlfur Eldjárn, Hörður Bragason, Arnar Geir Ómarsson, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Sighvatur Ómar Kristinsson
I want to play any Sonic game to Apparat Organ Quartet. I want to larp to their self-titled album. I want to go scuba diving to it. I want to make sure anyone who cares about Dungeons & Dragons at least knows this album exists so they can experience all of their fantastical dreams to this album. Yes, there’s something inherently nerdy about this record. Its Nintendo vibe has me in a headspace that screams “You haven’t quite grown up yet — go play some video games and get it out of your system.” But that’s what’s beautiful about it. This natural dorky electronic world that is so wrapped up in its own world, so much so that it creates its own world within itself; something that is new and refreshing but nostalgic and relatable at the same time. Usually, I like to compare bands to other bands, so that readers can say “yes, this sounds like something I would listen to.” However, I can’t do that with Apparat Organ Quartet. They lack the kind of comparable guidelines that would be seemingly obvious in most genres. What they lack here, is something that they end up gaining. For me, that gain is something that is so beautifully original and sleek. Something that speaks for itself in its own mystical aura (that’s right, I said “aura”). I guess I just need to encourage music lovers to take a listen to this self-titled release. It’s going to give you feelings, in the same way it gave me something to feel. Embrace it. That’s the point of art.
Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band
Every day we face an onslaught of disposable music especially when it comes to electronic music. It feels like we are forced to listen to songs that just recycle the same melodies over and over to fit an audience that can feasibly only enjoy themselves to the beat of the same thumping bass drum, but friends, there is hope and its name is the Apparat Organ Quartet. Their self-titled album, handled with care by the band, has each track flowing seamlessly together to form a wall of sound that engulfs you momentarily in a wave of tonal harmony, from the ambient hissing on “Ondula Nova” to the shimmery leads on “Stereo Rock & Roll.” Everything you hear seems to have been handpicked by what is clearly a group of powerful digital wizards. The band plays with organ tones familiar to anyone who has ever played on a Super Nintendo system, but don’t let the connection to retro videogames subvert your expectations. The Apparat Organ Quartet elevate their sound by embracing progressive-rock sensibilities, thus bringing us an electronic album with incredible depth and movement. “Seremonia” is a perfect example of how the band weaves smooth synth voicings and vintage organ tones with a push pull tempo that simultaneously speaks to both your petulant inner child and gawky young adult. So, the next time you’re out at the bar flirting with the idea of drowning yourself in the cheapest, strongest substance you can get your hands on, request Apparat Organ Quartet’s “Romantika” and dance like no one is watching.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
It always amazes me how a nation as physically small and rather remote as Iceland, continues to hold up such a brightly burning candle of musical talent on the world stage. Artists don’t come flying out of Reykjavík in mass droves but those that do, quite easily epitomize the sentiment of “quality over quantity;” not to mention the rise of widely successful local festivals like Iceland Airwaves. In any case, the point is, finding out that the Apparat Organ Quartet is based in Reykjavik leads to hardly a twinge of shock, given Iceland’s well of creativity. If anything, the realization that Apparat’s name isn’t just for plain intrigue (see exhibit A: the band, Public Service Broadcasting) but that the group is in fact comprised of immensely skilled organists, is what brings cause for being impressed. Not unlike the instrument-focused-character of my last pick by cello-rockers in Issue #62, Break Of Reality, Apparat Organ Quartet really takes their namesake instrument to an unexpected place — all without resorting to completely hiding the organ’s natural tone color. The incredibly intricate melodies composed on this eponymous release are both awe-inspiring and totally crank worthy in the volume department. The natural organ that permeates the album lends it an air of Baroque era style almost by default. The up-tempo, nimbly moving pitches in tracks like the opening “Romantika,” and the more melodically narrow but minor-key slanted hook in later track “Seremonia,” evoke differing tendencies applied by Johann Sebastian Bach (Would you like a Toccata minor fugue with that?). This isn’t to say, of course, that Apparat’s debut sounds overly classical, compositionally pedantic, or otherwise dated. It’s very much the opposite actually. Dynamically fierce drumming (“Cruise Control“), synth tones that sounds like they were sucked out of a nearby old school arcade (“Global Capital“), and digitized vocals channeling Daft Punk in the best way (“Stereo Rock & Roll“), give Apparat Organ Quartet a superfluity of modernizing sounds and shaping elements to choose from that make any concentration on the organ feel more like a choice of interesting chronological contrast, as opposed to one based in sonic stiffness.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
I don’t like to listen to an album for the first time while I’m on my bike. It’s not safe, nor legal, to wear my headphones over my ears, so I use headphones that also double as speakers, which means that whatever I’m listening to, I’m listening to passively. I don’t get to truly absorb the music because I’m more focused on the road in front of me. But something about Apparat Organ Quartet spoke out, and made me feel like I could go against my “no first listen on a bike” rule and I wouldn’t regret it. So, as I headed out to run some errands, I hopped on my bike and took a gamble. It paid off. As a largely instrumental album, Apparat Organ Quartet provided an unexpectedly relaxing soundtrack to my bike ride. I don’t listen to a lot of instrumental music, not because I have a dislike for it, but I’m most often drawn to music with vocals. That said, the combination of minimal lyrics and electronic noises reminded me of a video game (my reference point for riding bikes in video games is limited to the Pokémon series), at the very least The Lego Movie soundtrack (the fact that the album cover features PlayMobil models of the band members did not help when it came to my mind making that connection), and it was soothing to hear it while riding through the neighborhood of Red Hook. I didn’t need to half-heartedly listen out for any sing-along choruses or standout one-liners, I could just ride and let the music set the tone for how fast I needed to be pedaling. It was enjoyable. In fact, it was so enjoyable that I’ve listened to the album every day on my way to work this past week, regardless of whether I’m biking or not. I’ve listened to it while walking around IKEA looking for some new kitchen supplies. I’ve listened while cleaning my apartment. I’ve listened to it a lot, is what I’m trying to say. I still don’t know which song titles belong to which tracks (save for “Cruise Control” and “Stereo Rock & Roll“), but I do know that it makes for one hell of a fun listen.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
Award-winning composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the boundless mastermind of AOQ and its initial founder.
Listening to this album made me feel the same way I did when I first started listening to Pink Floyd. The elements of not knowing what sound is going to come next, a soundscape that sounds like the year 2005 as imagined in 1972, and the bedrock of great, straightforward songwriting are all present and accounted for. I like this album to a level that is actually somewhat embarrassing. If I believed in the concept, I might be tempted to put this into the Guilty Pleasure bin, but I think it’s silly to feel guilt when enjoying music, so I’m going to embrace the joy that it brings me to hear these robots playing their wonderful tunes. As usual, I wish I’d been listening to this all my life, though I suppose in this case, it’s good that I didn’t have access to the song “Cruise Control” when I was a new driver. I hate to think of how many more speeding tickets I would have accumulated if I’d been able to crank that when I was 17.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
This is a driving record. No, I don’t mean forceful, or energetic, or heavy-on-the-guitar-overdrive. I mean, this record makes you want to get off your ass, grab the keys, sit back down on your ass (but in a car this time), and drive! If you’re of a certain age, there’s no way that the pulsing opener “Romantika” doesn’t make you want to go full throttle on Excite Bike (an original Nintendo game). The same goes for “Global Capital,” though this time complete with Daft Punk style vocals. Let me just say, for the record, I am by no means an expert in anything outside of hip hop, so forgive me if the common denominator for me is Daft Punk. I fully realize that there is a distinct possibility that they didn’t create that robot-vocal-effect-thingy. It’s just that they’re the most popular group in the genre, so that’s my ignorant reference point. But that’s not all that AOQ can do — yes, I totally just took the liberty of applying an acronym to a band I just heard of 2 hours ago. I’d have to say that my favorite records on the album are when AOQ go dark. There’s the mellow interlude “Ondula Nova,” or the downright spooky “Seremonia.” But “The Anguish Of Space Time” takes the cake. It starts off kind of like an ’80s rock ballad, with a very slow, dramatic chord progression. It then builds to the lovely, unexpected ruckus of live drums. I must admit, I was expecting 808s due to the “electronic” nature of the album. I feel like this record in particular is what RZA has been trying to figure out how to do all these years with his soundtrack work. The blending of electronics and live percussion here is spot on.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
No wonder I was imagining weird movies when I was listening to this Apparat Organ Quartet album — it’s a Jóhann Jóhannsson project! As a fan of many things Icelandic, I’ve been enjoying his soundtracks for the past few years, including Sicario, which I called a “sonic dissection of dread” and Arrival, of which I said, “It’s hard to imagine a better match of music and film…” I also found his take on the Orpheus myth engaging, especially the choral movement at the end. He’s also composed a piece for my favorite Icelandic chamber music ensemble, Nordic Affect, which ranks him very high in my book. That new piece is called “A wheel, slowly, rolling out of itself,” which reminds me of the sound of AOQ, each piece starting simply and growing more detailed and gaining momentum throughout. The overall sound is a fun homage to Kraftwerk, Stereolab, and others of that ilk, while still maintaining a particular Icelandic sangfroid. For me, the fascination of AOQ lies mainly in understanding the development of someone who has become a composer of consequence, especially in the arena of film, and I enjoyed the opportunity to delve into his past. I heard there’s going to be a sequel to Sicario and I can’t wait to hear it as well as see it.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
The diverse background AOQ’s members share, from experimental pop to graphic design, makes this music outstanding, even pioneering at times.
Over a decade ago, I was in a relationship with someone who lived several states away. He was in grad school at an Ivy League college, in a town where everything was hilly and green. One time I visited him and we stayed in his grandparents’ house a few towns over from his Ivy League castles. The house had large windows where you could become awash in all the green, and I was particularly taken with his grandfather’s art studio, which was so beautiful, with its messes just perfectly so, like an old French movie. We went on hikes, even though I hated them at the time, because I wanted him to like me and accept me into his highbrow lifestyle. The soundtrack to our relationship was usually something we could both agree on, like The Magnetic Fields, or, increasingly, his choices, which I thought of as “minimalist electronic composer crap,” mostly lots of Fennesz and Jóhann Jóhannsson. To me, their music seemed distant and coldly academic, and didn’t fit in with our car rides near verdant fields and sparkling lakes. I’m sure he played me Jóhannsson’s project, Apparat Organ Quartet, and I thought, “nice video game music,” and ignored it. But now I totally get his obsession with this genre, especially when you’re being challenged intellectually all the time: it’s almost a form of meditation. Listening to “Global Capital” or “Seremonia,” for instance, I felt so relaxed, like I was almost in a different place. This record fills the room with warmth, which I wasn’t expecting for something so heavily electronic. While I still don’t necessarily think Apparat Organ Quartet’s first record is perfect driving music, there is so much to love and explore through its discovery.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
I will start by admitting that I would never normally reach for a record like this. I’m not sure whether to call Apparat Organ Quartet 8-bit music, or chiptune, or just standard electronica, but its mid-tempo, mostly instrumental tunes are close enough to rock music that at best I tend to find myself wishing the band had used real instruments instead of programmed sequencing. It seems these guys use a mix of both on their first album, though if anything I hope the drums are just a very good-sounding program… because otherwise, they’re being played by a very uncreative drummer. I definitely don’t dislike everything here, by any stretch. At its best, this album leans towards the cosmische avant-garde sounds created by German groups in the ’70s and ’80s. “Cruise Control” has the feel of a Kraftwerk outtake circa Man-Machine, while the quiet, ambient opening moments of “Ondula Nova” resemble the work of Tangerine Dream. Most of the time, though, the group lands much closer to the chiptune axis, ending up somewhere inbetween the work of hyperkinetic NYC crew Anamanaguchi and that of LA goofballs Fartbarf. Anamanaguchi are significantly faster, while Fartbarf has a more dynamic songwriting style; on most of these songs, Apparat Organ Quartet finds a mid-tempo groove and sticks with it for several minutes. The results are the 8-bit version of house remixes — designed to get your body moving in the club, but a bit samey when you’re just sitting in an armchair focusing on it. This entire album seems like it’d work best if listened to while gaming. So hey, fire up the Nintendo.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Being the middle child sandwiched between two boys, one five years older and one two years younger, meant a few things for my childhood. I know how to properly throw a football. My toy box had more G.I. Joes than baby dolls. I can take a punch, dig out a splinter without crying, and catch all my own fishing bait. With an older bro into video games during the 1980s and ’90s when it seemed like new systems came out every couple of years, I grew accustomed to watching other people’s action across the TV screen. Winters and rainy days were often spent lying on my back, feet on the couch, making my G.I. Joes dance around in time to the music of Mega Man, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Castlevania. It was oddly comforting then, and the pleasant feeling came back to me again listening to Apparat Organ Quartet this week. Making pad thai, the mister on the back porch working a crossword, I felt surprisingly domestic and homey as the plinky notes dotted our airspace. Plucky, optimistic even in the darker tones of the album, Apparat Organ Quartet is the kind of electronica album I think is more appealing to the masses than some others, and I’m going to place all my confidence in the appearance of real drums inside the miasma of robotic sound. In music meant to be felt more than mindlessly sung in the shower, drummer Þorvaldur Gröndal anchors us into a theatrical sound, gives a real-world context to the future spun out in the album. From the first moment we heard “Romantika,” the opening track and my favorite, we were head-bobbing, smiling without speaking aloud the mutual accord we felt in appreciating this music. As an adult, I’ve traded my dancing G.I. Joes for a glass of wine and a fiancée, but the coziness found in the metallic, interstellar pinging waves issuing from the speakers felt like home.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I can’t really think of a time where the contributors of Off Your Radar inspired my own contribution to the issue. There have been numerous times where I’ve tweaked my own submission after reading my colleagues’ work, often to spare a dead horse from further beatings, but I never really crafted my own thoughts and opinions with their interpretation in mind. For this issue, I had a full 400 words written up, praising how cathartic the inorganic rock sequences were and how I anticipated a Gary Glitter cameo each time I heard “Stereo Rock & Roll.” (It’s not just the drum beat, the melody even has a faint trace of “Rock & Roll Part 2” in it.) But after reading several of my colleagues mention video games in relation to this record, I just had to re-write mine. You see, every time I listened to this record, I was playing The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and it never once dawned on me how beautifully this soundtracks the immersive world of controlled mechanics. As the determined and jittery “Charlie Tango #2” played out, I was irritatingly attempting to climb cliffs during rainstorms in the Faron Grasslands. As “Cruise Control got my blood pumping, I took on Lynels in the Tabantha Snowfield to farm better bows, shields, and crushers. As “The Anguish Of Space Time” looped around with a childlike innocence, I continued to whittle down the amount of Korok Seeds needed to get the elusive 100% completion. (Less than 100 seeds to go — suck it, Hetsu. [I take that back — Hetsu, you’re awesome. Never change.]) As much as this enhanced the game experience and even improved my playing ability, the parallels to gaming soundtracks just didn’t hit me… that is until I saw everyone else hone in on it. Hell, I even found out AOQ had a song called “Konami” on their second record that had to have come about after beating Castlevania. I don’t know how much is intentional on AOQ, and this all may be coincidental, but it’s not lost on me how much this music moved me while playing a game series renowned for its own scores and compositions. Before putting this issue together, I viewed Apparat Organ Quartet as a bold step forward in electronica that surely had a hand in the electronica boom of the mid-2000s, or at least the Nordic portion of it. Now though, I view it as the sonic manifestation of Game Gear, an add-on that can enhance any game in any way you want, giving you countless hours of enjoyment.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
The True Meaning by Cormega
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford